Long walk still ahead for new South Africa

Yet another easy-listening ode to Nelson Mandela fades out on the radio and it's time for the ads. "If you witness corruption, report it," says the voice-over guy. "Let us honour Nelson Mandela's memory by fighting corruption." It's what he would have wanted, after all.

Yet another easy-listening ode to Nelson Mandela fades out on the radio and it's time for the ads. "If you witness corruption, report it," says the voice-over guy. "Let us honour Nelson Mandela's memory by fighting corruption." It's what he would have wanted, after all.

South Africa is having one of those nightmares that actors sometimes have. You're thrust on stage, everyone's watching, and you realise that you can't remember the script, and you seem to be wearing no trousers.

There was the bizarre spectacle of the Mandela memorial at FNB Stadium on Tuesday, a long, drizzly affair that played to an almost deserted arena by the time it was over, and will be remembered mostly for Barack Obama, a political "selfie" and a fake, possibly schizophrenic, sign language interpreter.

"We have got to be asking how does [the interpreter scandal] impact on all of us, on the image of our nation," bemoaned one radio host on 2000FM on Thursday. "He has disgraced us."

And there was the booing. Local media dubbed it "Rain-boo nation". President Jacob Zuma was billed as the event's keynote speaker but the crowd turned against him from the moment he appeared, and didn't warm up through the ploddingly delivered speech. In front of 90 of the world's most influential leaders it was humiliating.

Since Nelson Mandela walked triumphantly free from prison in 1990 his country has come a long way. It has dismantled apartheid, that poisonous relic of Nazi ideology that held both oppressed and oppressors prisoner. It has conducted not just one, but four democratic elections, with a fifth on the way next year. It has dug sewers, powered homes, buried prejudice. It is the "S" in BRICS, the acronym for the world's five biggest emerging national economies, increasingly influential on the global stage.

An entire generation born in a free nation will vote for the first time in 2014.

This is the proud, vibrant legacy of a giant of the 20th century. In local media, Mandela is being revered in frankly religious terms: as a man who suffered and has now died, but delivered his people into the promised land. He is worshipped.

But the hard fact is, South Africa is still a work in progress.

As the boos suggested, one of the most controversial figures in South African politics is its President, Jacob Zuma.

He almost didn't win the post at all. In 2005 he was booted by Thabo Mbeki from his role as deputy president after being implicated in a corruption scandal. The same year he was charged with raping the daughter of a family friend.

But both charges failed to stick. The corruption action faltered after procedural issues, and the sexual act was found to be consensual. And by 2009 his reputation had recovered enough (thanks partly to his adoption of the rebellious anthem Bring me my machine gun, and partly his left-wing power base), to take him to the presidency.

The wound still gapes. This week, Mbeki made some pointed comments about South African leadership. Mandela's generation had bequeathed many values to those who followed, he told the Calvary Methodist Church in Midrand. "Principal among these values is to serve the people, not to serve themselves," he said, to sustained applause.

Corruption is an increasing concern in South Africa. It's not just the corruption itself, it's the perception of corruption they don't want to stick. "Corruption existed in the apartheid regime, but maybe not to the extent that there is now," says Lerato Moloi, head of research at the South African Institute of Race Relations. "The problem is that the ruling party, the ANC, has such a high majority of the vote that they are basically a ruling elite."

The latest scandal is Zuma's $20 million splurge on his rural home at Nkandla. According to the government, it is a security upgrade with necessary elements such as police quarters, paid from the public purse. According to media reports, the renovation includes a visitors' lounge, amphitheatre, cattle enclosure, swimming pool and houses for the President's relatives - for which Zuma will pay only 5 per cent of the total cost.

In May a wedding caused an outrage. A member of the rich Gupta family was married in one of South Africa's most lavish resorts, the Palace of the Lost City. Relatives from India were granted an unusual gift: permission to land their chartered planes at highly secure military bases, and huge security escorts to the wedding site.

It was dubbed "Guptagate". The Gupta family are close supporters of Zuma. "We are not living in a banana republic," Jeremy Cronin, a leader of the South African Communist Party, complained. "We are not a playground for rich foreigners to come and occupy our space, to come and take over a national key point."

A government investigation exonerated Zuma and his ministers, blaming "collusion by officials", but media reports have unearthed contradictory evidence.

And there is another controversial Gupta-Zuma link - according to media reports the President's son Duduzane, along with the Gupta family, operated an illegal mining operation for three years while the government turned a blind eye.

Zuma is not the only government figure to come under a corruption cloud.

The Agriculture Minister is under fire, after a scandal involving an $80 million tender for fishery vessels. South Africa's Public Protector investigated and found "improper conduct and maladministration".

It's an Achilles heel for Zuma, judging by the boos. But there is another point of view. Though the ANC still has a virtual lock on the next election - the veterans of "the struggle" simply could not vote any other way - other parties are gaining ground. The Democratic Alliance, once seen as a white minority party, is now being taken more seriously as an opposition. The left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, which split from the ANC, is making headlines thanks to the populist charisma of its leader Julius Malema.

Polls are unreliable, however the theory goes that the ANC may have to look more like a genuine, responsible government in order to retain a majority next year. As its lock on power loosens, its governance should improve.

Well, that's the theory. But corruption and political stagnation is far too simple a summary of South Africa's problems.

Mandela fought for equality - and won equal voting rights.

But there are other measures of inequality. The recent Economic Survey of South Africa by the OECD pinged South Africa as having one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world - worse than Brazil or Russia - or the US, one of the most unequal in the OECD.

Drive through the old townships, or the rural veld, and the poverty hits you in the face. It's like someone has sketched the skeleton of a Western country on the flesh of Africa.

One of the main problems is unemployment. Moloi says unemployment is officially at 25 per cent but unofficially much higher, taking into account those not even looking for work. And youth unemployment is nudging 50 per cent.

Growth, though not taking a Europe-level hit, has almost flatlined since the financial crisis - it was 3.6 per cent in 2008, and 2.5 per cent in 2012.

The government has done all it can, she argues. For the past two decades it has poured money into the social safety net, boosted social services and tried to improve the lot of the poorest of the poor.

"We have now reached the point that the state has done all it can do," Moloi argues.

The next step is economic empowerment. Rather than coddling its citizens, South Africa needs to let them go: educate them, then let loose the free market. "We need to foster entrepreneurship," Moloi says. "We are not producing high-school graduates with the basic skills to go into the workplace."

There are also infrastructure problems. You can't attract new factories to a country without the power supplies to light them up.

The government has put together a "national development plan" that is viewed favourably in foreign eyes. It's a roadmap to 2030 that envisions less red tape, better infrastructure, and a maturation of the economy into areas such as manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications.

The plan is not yet fully embraced - the ANC is a broad church and its left-wing elements are suspicious of the NDP's free-market aroma.

But Moloi says it's "not all doom and gloom" for South Africa.

South Africa represents almost a quarter of the continent's GDP, its economic powerhouse.

Business confidence was shaken by the Marikana mine confrontation, in which police opened fire on strikers - some of them reportedly unarmed - but a year on it is increasingly seen as a one-off.

The legal system is strong, the media are feisty and free, the constitution is widely admired for embedding basic freedoms and rights.

On the world stage South Africa is seen as a significant player. With many eyes on Africa as the new economic frontier, South Africa is the only African member of the G20, and pushes its role as a regional leader.

"South Africa is amazing," says Moloi. "We have a very strong civil society, and we are very vocal about what we feel, what we want, what we are not happy about.

"I don't think we are at risk of falling apart. There are things we need to work on, like unemployment and education, but it's going towards a trajectory that Mandela would have wanted."

At least there is one thing it doesn't have to worry about. Surprisingly, considering the country's history, it is race relations.

Moloi says that South Africans have got along with one another largely peacefully for years. "Race relations are pretty much stable," she says. "This is a time to reflect on Mandela's legacy and how far we have come on equality."

Of course, there is still occasional racism, but it is pointed out and rejected.

Among some right-wing Afrikaner groups, Mandela's death was predicted to be the cue for open season against white South Africans. Nothing of the kind has happened.

"It's not a reflection of the way the normal South African thinks," Moloi says. "If anything, people laugh it off."

And there's a part of Mandela's legacy right there. In a few decades, one of the most racist countries in the world has reduced racism to a joke. Not a bad record, all things considered.

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